Cambodia: Echoes of Fascism

The rise of the thugs.

Those who had hoped that Prime Minister Hun Sen's surprise near-loss in the flawed elections last July would lead to a more accommodating stance have been sadly disappointed. The man who has dominated Cambodia and her people for almost three decades still holds an iron grip. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)’s mandate to conduct “free and fair general elections” in 1993 has proved largely irrelevant over time to the politics on the ground. Cambodian human rights bloggers have even recently raised the specter of a sinister “Third Hand” formed to maintain that iron grip.

Last year’s midsummer night’s dream of a possible political evolution was finally buried for good on January 2–3, when the grounds outside of the Canadia Industrial Park were turned into Cambodia's latest killing field. There, a combination of security forces and plainclothes thugs reportedly harassed and beat demonstrating garment workers before opening fire on the crowd. They left a scene of bloody carnage, with five dead and over thirty injured. In addition, twenty-three labor activists and workers were taken into police custody and have been held since, without access to families, lawyers or adequate medical treatment. A January 31 opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) press release indicated that a delegation of CNRP MPs-elect and family members will be able to visit these detainees at the maximum-security prison where they are being held on February 4. However, the decision by the Hun Sen regime to largely ignore the international outcry following this bloodshed and to continue its policy of cracking down on the political opposition and on workers still bodes ill for a peaceful conclusion to the present impasse.

An estimated ninety percent of Cambodia's seven hundred thousand garment workers, who help provide trendy clothing for such big brand names as the Gap, Nike, Adidas and Levi Strauss, as well as for discount giant Walmart, are young women from the countryside. They toil long hours making clothing and footwear for a monthly minimum wage of less than one hundred dollars. Some fifty thousand of them had begun striking to raise that wage to $160.

(Representatives of some of these brand name companies signed a letter dated January 17 from the international garment industry to Prime Minister Hun Sen expressing concern over the January 2-3 killings, the rights of the detainees, and the need to uphold trade union law, including ILO Conventions 87 and 98.)

A particularly ominous development in the current battle in the streets for the soul of Cambodia is the appearance of young males without any official designation who reportedly join in using violence to quell dissent. Hun Sen himself, according to Voice of America, was quoted in December as warning of the emergence of this shadowy “Third Hand” if demonstrations continued.

The presence of these “Third Hand” forces has been cited by CNRP official Eng Chhay Eang as the reason for the cancellation of a recent rally in Kandal. The young toughs in civilian clothes were said to be wearing matching red wristbands after being enlisted “to threaten and intimidate opposition supporters.” The Cambodia Daily on January 22 described the young men as “sporting tight-cropped, military-style haircuts.” Some have even put forward the claim that this "Third Hand" could be used in future attempts to assassinate opposition CNRP leaders.

The security forces involved in the labor crackdown also have a jaded past. Brad Adams, the Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in the Cambodia Daily on January 9 of the brutal history of Brigade 911 before its reported deployment in the January 2-3 shootings. This Indonesian-trained parachute brigade, commanded by the notorious General Chap Pheakadey, now a member of the Central Committee of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), was involved in the brutal human-rights abuses connected with Hun Sen’s 1997 coup against Prince Ranariddh’s political party, FUNCINPEC. On that occasion, according to Adams, “dozens of people were being unlawfully detained and tortured at the 911 base west of Phnom Penh International Airport.” Brigade 911’s history of brutality has apparently written another chapter.

Another report of security-force involvement in the January 2-3 shootings was raised on January 17 by the Global Post. That report asserted that the embassies of certain Asian countries that are major investors in Cambodia’s garment industryplayed a behind-the-scenes role in the events leading up to the Cambodian military’s crackdown.” Foreign diplomats were reported to have lobbied an official “from an elite agency whose role has nothing to do with labor strikes: the country’s National Counterterrorism Committee (NCTC).” This appeal was reportedly made under the rationale of protection of the properties of foreign investors. Given the subsequent bloodshed, foreign missions in Phnom Penh have rapidly moved to distance themselves from any implied involvement in human rights abuses. The NCTC—“a powerful, well-funded body with a brigade-sized military unit reportedly in the hundreds”—has not been used extensively to address terrorist threats –which most foreign observers agree are minimal in Cambodia. Rather the NCTC, whose special forces unit, according to Global Post, is commanded by Hun Sen’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, a West Point graduate, has acted as the eyes and ears for the Prime Minister in monitoring and, when necessary, cracking down on his political opponents.